A few weeks ago, at a place in downtown Seattle where I volunteer, a man walked in the door and asked where he could set up his prayer mat. He was wearing a traditional Muslim cap and a long white dress with pants underneath, similar to some traditional clothes often seen worn by Muslim men. Upon hearing his question, I immediately understood what he meant. Having grown up in a majority Muslim country and having been brought up learning about Islam, I knew what he was looking for. I told him that he could pray right there in the room. I even took out a compass I had with me to tell him where East was. He thanked me and proceeded to pray. After he had finished, I announced to the office that I was going to the coffeeshop downstairs to get coffee. The walk-in man offered to go with me. He was fascinated by my strange name and my apparently not-exactly-white-looking features and asked me where I was from. I replied that I was originally Iranian. He then asked if I was Muslim and I replied that even though I was born Muslim, I no longer believed in god, so no I was not Muslim per se. I usually don’t engage people I don’t know well in conversations about their background but since he had begun the questioning, I allowed myself to return the questions, so I asked, “What about you? What’s your ethnic background?” He looked a bit surprised by the question and said, “African-American.” It probably took me a second, but I quickly responded, “Oh, so you converted to Islam?” And he affirmed that indeed he had. We got our coffee and returned to the office upstairs.
I have to admit that I was extremely embarrassed by this entire exchange. I had made so many assumptions about this man that I normally did not allow myself to make about people. So I chided myself: just because he’s black, doesn’t mean he’s not American! Just because he’s Muslim, doesn’t mean he’s from some North African country! The point is I had truly expected him to reply that he was FROM a certain African country BECAUSE he was Muslim, even though he was just an African-American who had converted to Islam. How could I, who so often gets angry about people who make these assumptions about my background, make the exact same assumption about somebody else? The implication is: if you’re Muslim, you’re not American. If you’re brown/black, you’re not American. If you’re a brown/black Muslim, you COME FROM some place else; you’re an immigrant.
I am often confronted by a variety of assumptions about my identity, my positionality, my beliefs, my values, my social roles, and my relationships due to the color of my skin. So I thought that if I was able to perhaps list the myriad of assumptions that I’ve experienced in the United States regarding who I am, perhaps I might be able to prevent myself from acting on my own prejudices, assumptions, and privileges, and to liberate myself from my own internalized racism and whiteness.
So here is a list of assumptions made about me because I am Iranian/Middle Eastern/Brown/Person of Color. People assume:
1. That I’m Muslim.
2. That I’m straight.
3. That I don’t speak English well.
4. That I don’t understand American idioms and expressions.
5. That I’m filthy rich.
6. That I’m dirt poor.
7. That I know how to bellydance.
8. That I’m gender-conforming.
9. That I speak Spanish.
10. That I speak Arabic.
11. That I come from an impoverished country.
12. That I come from a war-torn country.
13. That I’m not American.
14. That I’m not a US citizen.
15. That I’m religious.
16. That I’m a FOB.
17. That I’m privy to secret information about the “situation” in the Middle East that no one else has access to.
18. That I always feel oppressed or discriminated against.
19. That I benefit from Affirmative Action.
20. That life is easy because I benefit from Affirmative Action.
21. That because I’m a brown female, I’ve been “oppressed” by brown males and am waiting for white males and white female feminists to “liberate” me.
22. That I hate America.
23. That I am Arab.
24. That I would only date within my own ethnicity.
25. That I know every other Iranian in this area.
26. That I know everything about the history, culture and politics of Iran.
27. That I’m exotic.
28. That I’m not familiar with American pop culture.
29. That I’m the spokesperson for everything Iran or Middle East.
30. That I know everything about the history and all sects of Islam.
31. That as a female living in Iran, life was difficult and horrible.
32. That I grew up without any concept of and access to technology.
33. That as a female in Iran, I’ve never done any sports.
34. That I’m a terrorist.
35. That I support the Iranian nuclear program.
36. That I don’t like people from other ethnicities.
37. That “my people” are backward.
38. That “my people” are homophobic.
39. That “my people” are sexist.
40. That I have a people.
41. That I will always defend Iranian politics no matter the policy or the situation.
42. That I’m anti-Semitic.
43. That I hate Israel and want it seen “wiped off the map”.
44. That I “should go home”.
45. That I automatically have a sense of identification with all Muslims, Middle Easterners and other brown folks.
And last but not least…
46. That I’ve ridden camels…everyday…to school. :)
This list is not meant to be comprehensive or to encompass the experiences of all Iranian/Middle Eastern/Brown/People of Color, but quite the contrary, it’s meant to show how often experiences of people of color are homogenized, uniformed, and marginalized.
Just for interest, indicate the ones you’ve personally experienced and please feel free to add your own in the comments section below. :)